Pebble Mine: Army Corps Rushes Out Another Flawed Review

Robert Glenn Ketchum

The Army Corps of Engineers privately circulated a preliminary final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for the proposed Pebble Mine project to Tribes and cooperating federal agencies. This environmental review by the Army Corps is just as flawed as its previous version.

The Army Corps continues to ignore Tribes, cooperating agencies, and other stakeholders who have pointed out numerous gaps, deficiencies, and legal errors. Worse, the agency is now blatantly ignoring a clear and bipartisan directive from Congress to address these data gaps and deficiencies in the EIS.

Here is a statement from United Tribes of Bristol—a consortium representing 15 tribal governments and more than 80 percent of the region’s total population—Executive Director Alannah Hurley:

For two years, the Army Corps has refused to listen to the people of Bristol Bay. Now they’re refusing to listen to Congress, too. Enough is enough. This corrupt process must be stopped. Senator Lisa Murkowski authored and passed language in last year’s budget bill demanding the Corps do more to address data gaps and agency-identified problems with the EIS.  This newest version shows a complete disregard for that directive.

The Army Corps has shown a complete disregard for the people and environment in Bristol Bay throughout the permitting process. It’s no surprise that their latest, and near-final, environmental review does so as well. (emphasis added)

Pebble Mine, the widely condemned gold and copper mine, would sit at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, Alaska. It would threaten the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery that generates $1.5 billion in annual revenue and 14,000 jobs. Salmon have sustained the subsistence culture of Alaska Natives for millennia. 

In its rush to permit the Pebble Mine, the Army Corps ignores the very real risks to Bristol Bay—and the economies, people, wildlife and fish that depend upon it.

Despite its claims otherwise, the Army Corps’ preliminary final EIS utterly fails to address concerns raised by Tribes, cooperating agencies, independent scientists, and stakeholders. For example, it continues to lack important fieldwork data, modeling, and economic feasibility analysis requested by stakeholders. The Army Corps’ preliminary final EIS also fails to analyze the impact of a potential tailings dam failure. The Army Corps may want to bury its head in the sand about catastrophic failure, but mines can and do fail, including recent mining dam failures in British Columbia in 2014 and Brazil in 2015 and 2019. A modern mine—even with advanced technology and permitting requirements—simply cannot be engineered to withstand the inherent dangers of mining in perpetuity. Given that the Pebble Mine will have to store toxic waste forever, the Army Corps must acknowledge that catastrophic failure is possible and model the risks of that failure.

The preliminary final EIS also makes significant changes to the project design and impacts without affording the public the opportunity to comment. For example, the preliminary final EIS uses new groundwater hydrology modeling, air quality modeling, and fugitive dust modeling. It increases the miles of impacted streams by 25 miles; the Pebble Mine will now destroy over 100 miles of streams! And it includes new management plans—including a woefully inadequate compensatory mitigation plan that would allow the Pebble Mine to destroy thousands of acres of wetlands in exchange for upgrading three village sewage treatment plants, installing culverts, and cleaning up a beach.

Yet the Army Corps’ is not allowing the public an opportunity to review and comment on any of these changes—as required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Indeed, the Army Corps’ rush to permitting has created a process that precludes meaningful analysis and participation. The project description has changed four times since Pebble’s initial application in December 2017. And since the draft EIS, the Army Corps has allowed the Pebble Partnership to submit responses to more than 150 new Requests for Information (RFIs) containing new data, plans, modeling, and analysis—without providing the public an opportunity to review and comment.

Despite this deluge of last-minute information, this preliminary final EIS is just as bad as the draft EIS.

The draft EIS was so far off that other Trump administration agencies pointed out its flaws. The Interior Department derided the Corps’ review as “so inadequate that it precludes meaningful analysis.”  The National Marine Fisheries Service lambasted it as “limited, sparse” and “lack[ing] scientific rigor.”  The Environmental Protection Agency noted the Corps’ failure to evaluate the impacts of a potential mine tailings dam failure and recommended that the Corps develop a failure scenario. EPA further concluded that “Pebble may have substantial and unacceptable effects” on fisheries in Bristol Bay. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that the Pebble Mine “will have significant adverse impacts on important, fish, wildlife, and aquatic habitats” and recommended the Army Corps deny the permit.

Based on all of this outcry by federal agencies, Bristol Bay Tribes, dozens of independent scientists, and other stakeholders, Congress sounded the alarm.

The U.S. House of Representatives  passed an appropriations package last June that included an amendment to restrict FY 20 funding for the Army Corps to finalize the Pebble Mine EIS. The U.S. Senate included report language authored by Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski highlighting the concerns voiced by tribes and cooperating federal agencies that the Army Corps’ draft EIS is “inadequate and does not meet the Army Corps’ obligations to thoroughly evaluate the potential impacts of the proposed project.” 

The Committee shares the agencies’ concerns that the DEIS lacks certain critical information about the proposed project and related mitigation and therefore likely underestimates its potential risks and impacts. Sound science must guide Federal decisionmaking and all gaps and deficiencies identified in comments from Federal agencies and other stakeholders, including Alaska Natives, must be fully addressed even if that requires additional scientific study, data collection and more comprehensive analysis of the project’s potential impacts. (emphasis added)

Last year’s final budget bill included this report language. With it, Congress gave the Army Corps a clear and bipartisan directive: to “fully address” “all gaps and deficiencies” in the draft EIS identified by stakeholders.

The Army Corps’ preliminary final EIS fails to do so.

Because of the Army Corps’ irresponsible haste, there are a wide array of issues that undermine the integrity of the preliminary final EIS and the permit process as a whole, including continuing to ignore missing information and allowing baseline data collection and various scientific studies to occur after the EIS and permitting decisions are made. Wetlands, rivers and streams that will be impacted by the proposed mine still have not been mapped. Fish, water quality, hydrologic studies and wildlife surveys remain missing or incomplete. Not to mention the Army Corps continues to limit tribal consultation.

Bristol Bay is simply too special to risk on a rushed, inadequate permitting process that ignores everyone from stakeholders to Congress. NEPA and the Clean Water Act require more. Congress has demanded more.

The Army Corps' preliminary final EIS cannot stand. Only when the Pebble Partnership demonstrates economic feasibility, collects all requested baseline data, conducts all required surveys, and complies with the specific requirements of federal law, should the Army Corps reissue a revised EIS and resume the process of public notice, review, and comment.

About the Authors

Taryn Kiekow Heimer

Deputy Director, Marine Mammal Protection Project, Nature Program

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